A Royal Commission established by the government of South Australia to investigate options for nuclear expansion has released its interim report.1 Australia's role in the nuclear fuel cycle is currently limited to uranium mining and export. The Royal Commission is negative about almost all of the proposals it is asked to consider. It concluded that uranium conversion, enrichment and nuclear fuel reprocessing will not be economically viable for the foreseeable future. It found that conventional nuclear power and small reactors will not be economically viable for the foreseeable future.
Significantly, the Royal Commission has dealt a blow to advocates of 'integral fast reactors' (IFR). The Commission faced a major co-ordinated lobbying exercise promoting a plan to import spent fuel and to convert it (well, a small fraction of it) to fuel for IFRs. The illogical nature of the waste-to-fuel plan is neatly debunked in an important recent report by The Australia Institute.2
The Royal Commission could not be clearer on the topic of fast reactors. Its interim report states: "Fast reactors or reactors with other innovative designs are unlikely to be feasible or viable in South Australia in the foreseeable future. No licensed and commercially proven design is currently operating. Development to that point would require substantial capital investment. Moreover, the electricity generated has not been demonstrated to be cost-competitive with current light water reactor designs."
So the waste-to-fuel IFR fantasies are dead and buried ... for the time being.
The Royal Commission promotes a plan for South Australia to accept nuclear waste from power plants around the world for storage and disposal – 138,000 tonnes heavy metal of spent nuclear fuel and 390,000 cubic meters of intermediate-level waste – over about 100 years. It makes absurd claims about the potential profits to be made, claims echoed by the state's one mass circulation newspaper – a Murdoch tabloid.
However the revenue estimates have no basis in reality. There is no comparable overseas model of commercial trade of nuclear waste for disposal. No real idea how many countries might avail themselves of the opportunity to send nuclear waste to Australia for disposal, or how much they might send, or how much they might pay. So there's no way of knowing whether revenue would exceed costs.
The estimated construction costs for a deep underground repository for high level waste are in the tens of billions of dollars. For example the construction cost estimate in France is US$27.8 billion (€25 billion)3 while in Japan the estimate is US$31 billion (€28 billion).4
Of course, there are significant additional costs associated with operating and monitoring repositories. The US governments estimates that to build a repository and operate it for 150 years would cost US$96 billion.5 The Royal Commission provides a similar figure: costs of $145 billion over 120 years for construction, operation and decommissioning.
But the above timeframes – 150 years in the U.S. report and 120 years in the Royal Commission study – are nothing compared to the lifespan of nuclear waste. It takes 300,000 years for high level waste to decay to the level of the original uranium ore.6 The Royal Commission report notes that spent nuclear fuel (high level nuclear waste) "requires isolation from the environment for many hundreds of thousands of years."
Economist Prof. Richard Blandy commented: "We are bequeathing a stream of costs to our successor generations. They will be poorer as a result, and will have reason to curse their forebears for selfishly making themselves better off at their expense."7
Despite the best efforts of the mainstream political parties and the Murdoch press, public opinion is strongly against the plan for a nuclear waste dump in South Australia, and the proposal is likely to meet with fierce opposition from Aboriginal Traditional Owners.
7. Richard Blandy, 23 Feb 2016, 'Nuclear waste dump confounds cost-benefit analysis', www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/opinion/the-advertiser-editorial-february-23...
– 'Australian push to become the world's nuclear waste dump', Nuclear Monitor #808, 18 Aug 2015, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/808/australian-push-become-wor...
– Friends of the Earth, Australia: www.foe.org.au/royal-commission